April Theater Preview: Bright Lights, Dark Comedy

Once again it is the time of year when sweet birdies sing, the tax man beckons, and people who normally do not even read poetry try to impress us by quoting T.S. Eliot’s grim and paradoxical line: “April is the cruellest month.”

In "Oblivion," Julie (Julia Warner) sees the light, but does Bernard (Christopher Larkin) get the picture?

In “Oblivion,” Julie (Julia Warner) sees the light, but does Bernard (Christopher Larkin) get the picture?

In this month of turbulent contrast, Pittsburgh theater companies and performing-arts groups present a lineup of shows to match the mood. The schedule is unusually loaded with dark comedy, tragicomedy, or whatever you wish to call that serious/funny kind of thing. Plays in this vein range from revived classics such as Strindberg’s The Dance of Death and Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class to new works like Endless Lawns and Oblivion.

We also have Quantum Theatre’s adaptation of the eerie novel All the Names, the ever-quirky Three Sisters by Chekhov—and, on the brighter side of the dark side, how about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast? Or Dirty Dancing? Shows are previewed here in order of their run dates.

Already running:

HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED by August Wilson, co-conceived with Todd Kreidler. Through Apr. 5, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Every theater fan knows about the ten plays of August Wilson’s famous “Pittsburgh Cycle” but there was a lesser known 11th. How I Learned What I Learned is a one-man autobiographical show first performed by Wilson himself in Seattle in 2003, just two years before his death. Pittsburgh Public Theater brings it home with co-creator Todd Kreidler directing the show, and actor Eugene Lee as Wilson. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (musical). Through Apr. 5, national touring company at Heinz Hall.

If you’ve seen the 1991 Disney animated film Beauty and the Beast, you may have marveled at how cheerfully the filmmakers managed to render this dark tale. But did you know that the movie made show-business history? In 1994 it was the first Disney animated feature adapted into a Broadway musical! Now you (and the kids) can revel in history re-enacted, as the latest road-show production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has been booked into Heinz Hall. 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

DINAH by Ernest McCarty. Through Apr. 5, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

Dinah Washington was called the Queen of the Blues, winning an R&B Grammy in 1959 for her torch ballad “What a Difference a Day Makes.” Alas, her own torch burned all too fast: Washington married seven times before dying of a drug overdose, in 1963, at the age of 39. Ernest McCarty’s play is a portrait of a woman who did not go quietly through the music industry, or through life. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

It's a dark day on the "Endless Lawns" when Graham (Mark D. Staley) demands face time with Torch (Laurie Klatscher).

It’s a dark day on the “Endless Lawns” when Graham (Mark D. Staley) demands face time with Torch (Laurie Klatscher).

ENDLESS LAWNS by Anthony McKay. Through Apr. 12, Pittsburgh Playhouse REP.

See our review for details on Endless Lawns, which the Playhouse REP company has billed as “a collision of tragedy, comedy, and cocktails.” The play revolves around two late-middle-aged sisters whose dearly departed dad was a renowned actor, and be forewarned that explicit references to lawn mowing are included.

Playwright Anthony McKay is an associate professor of acting at Carnegie Mellon. His colleague Gregory Lehane, a drama and music professor with a distinguished global resume in directing, is director of Endless Lawns. Studio Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

OBLIVION by Carly Mensch. Through Apr. 26, City Theatre

This play concerns a hip, progressive, secular couple who are stunned when their teenaged daughter becomes a born-again Christian. The daughter’s best school chum is a boy who idolizes the film critic Pauline Kael and writes letters to her, unaware that Kael passed away years ago. So you might say Oblivion asks the question: Whose God is dead and in what sense? Playwright Carly Mensch has written for the TV shows “Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie.” Oblivion has been evolving since 2011, when it was showcased in Chicago at Steppenwolf Theatre’s annual First Look event. City Theatre brings it here as part of its mission to present new and emerging plays. Hamburg Studio Theatre, adjacent to 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

Opening in April:

CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS by Sam Shepard. Apr. 2-12, Pitt Department of Theatre Arts.

There are lots of plays about dysfunctional families, but nobody does dysfunction like Sam Shepard. Curse of the Starving Class is the play that put him on the map in that regard, winning the 1978 Obie Award for best new work. Like Shepard’s other classics such as Buried Child and True West, this one is a dark comedy—except with a capital D. It’s about a California farm family whose members are losing the farm, losing their minds, and losing their way in a society where family farms often don’t cut it any longer. Curse of the Starving Class is seldom performed nowadays, and Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts is out to correct that omission with a new production. Also: Bring pre-packaged food donations for Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and receive $2 off your ticket. Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

Dirty-Dancing

DIRTY DANCING (adapted from the movie). Apr. 7-12, North American touring company at Benedum Center.

Let’s correct an urban legend, please. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the closing number from Dirty Dancing, is NOT the most popular song played at funerals in the U.K. That honor belongs to Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” But for a night at the theater, rather than a funeral, the stage version of Dirty Dancing might be your ticket. It’s a live adaptation of the 1987 film about a teenager and a dance instructor that has been variously called one of the best movies ever, and one of the cheesiest. A North American touring company brings it to Benedum Center with all of the rock-pop oldies and dramatic energy that made this story the stuff of legend. 237 7th St., Cultural District.

THREE SISTERS by Anton Chekhov. Apr. 9-11 & 21-25, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

Who says Chekhov is complicated? Here’s a quick synopsis of Three Sisters: Everyone in the play is either unhappily married or unhappily unmarried. The former have affairs. The latter have existential crises. Somebody dies in a duel. The three sisters want to leave their provincial backwater and move to Moscow, but they don’t. Meanwhile their brother’s bad marriage turns incredibly bad—and that’s it! Of course, to see how Chekhov turns this non-story into stirring tragicomedy, one must actually watch the play. The student actors at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama provide the opportunity. Philip Chosky Theater in the on-campus Purnell Center for the Arts, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

No April foolin' here: In Quantum's "All the Names," they're taking names. (L to R: actors Cameron Knight, James Fitzgerald, Mark Conway Thompson)

No April foolin’ here: In “All the Names,” they’re taking names. (L to R: actors Cameron Knight, James Fitzgerald, Mark Conway Thompson)

ALL THE NAMES—a devised play, adapted from José Saramago’s novel. Apr. 10 – May 2, Quantum Theatre.

The late Portuguese writer José Saramago won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature for his captivating novels that dance between fantasy and reality. Now a rare opportunity arises: the chance to immerse yourself in one of them performed live. All the Names is set in an unnamed land’s “Central Registry,” a massively spooky place where personal records of all the citizens are kept. When a lowly clerk prowls through the stacks at night, unauthorized, he finds a scrap of paper that triggers a strange and bewildering chain of events. Quantum Theatre is staging All the Names inside an old, historic former library. A team of artists (including Barbara Luderowksi of the Mattress Factory and filmmaker Joe Seamans) have helped devise a play that turns the building into Saramago’s fabled Registry. At the Original Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, Allegheny Square East, North Side.

OTHELLO by William Shakespeare. Apr. 16 – May 17, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

What can we say about Shakespeare’s Othello that hasn’t been said? Theater fans and scholars over the centuries have considered it one of the most crisply dramatic plays in the Shakespearean canon. It has a formidable hero married to an admirable heroine, and a devious villain who brings them both to grief. The tragic climax, with Othello murdering Desdemona after “honest Iago” tricks him into thinking his wife is unfaithful, continues to stun audiences even though they know it’s coming. Othello comes our way as part of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s 40th-anniversary season. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

"Death doesn't bargain"—Strindberg.

“Death doesn’t bargain”—Strindberg.

THE DANCE OF DEATH by August Strindberg; new version by Conor McPherson. Apr. 17 – May 3, Kinetic Theatre.

Macabre humor comes crackling out of the past in an updated version of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, staged by a new Pittsburgh company, Kinetic Theatre. August Strindberg was a turn-of-the-last century wild man who admired natural realism but also dove into studies of mysticism and the occult, then blended a range of viewpoints into writing plays that must be seen to be believed. This one—the playwright’s personal favorite—gives us an old soldier and his drama-queen wife gearing up to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their extremely rocky marriage which, ahem, nonetheless refuses to die. Kinetic, founded by longtime Pittsburgh theater maven Andrew Paul, is producing it at the New Hazlett Theatre. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

LA BAYADÈRE (ballet) by Marius Petipa. Apr. 17-19, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Classical ballet at its grandest is on display in La Bayadère (“The Temple Dancer”), the closing production of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s current season. This 1877 work by Marius Petipa—the legendary master who liked to pull out all the stops—has over 100 roles, and requires some of the most intricate and demanding dance technique in the repertoire. The story of La Bayadére is set in a mythical ancient India, where a noble warrior and the young dancer he loves are caught in a web of intrigue. For the audience, the intrigue includes mesmerizing mystical overtones, as in the famous “Kingdom of the Shades” scene. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

Lidberg's dancers teeter and swing through a surreal milieu in "Snow."

Lidberg’s dancers teeter and swing through a surreal milieu in “Snow.”

PONTUS LIDBERG DANCE (modern dance). Apr. 18 only, 8 p.m., presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

And if “mesmerizing” and “mystical” is your cup of tea, you may also wish to check out Pontus Lidberg. Pittsburgh Dance Council brings the acclaimed Swedish modern dancer and his company to the Byham Theater to perform their feature-length work called Snow. The subject may seem a natural one for an artist trained in Stockholm, but Lidberg takes it well into the realm of the supernatural. He is also known for making dance-based films, and while Snow is a stage performance, it certainly is influenced by Lidberg’s cinematic and dramatic sensibilities. 101 6th St., Cultural District.

JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS —songs by Jacques Brel, with English lyrics and additional material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. Apr. 29 – May 9, PICT Classic Theatre.

Jacques Brel, the Belgian songwriter and singer who died too young (at age 49) in 1978, was a phenomenal talent. Many songs that he wrote had the uncanny power of being deeply sentimental and hilariously cynical at the same time. And Brel was an electrifying performer who didn’t just sing his songs; he acted them, unafraid to go ‘way over the top, as if possessed by the tune and the lyrics. Since he worked in French, much of Brel’s cunning wordplay isn’t captured well by the subtitles on old clips of his shows. But in the 1960s, a number of his songs were translated artfully to English for an off-Broadway revue called Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris—and PICT Classic Theatre has assembled a fine cast of singer/actors to perform it here. Peirce Studio, Trust Arts Education Center, 805 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: Oblivion, by Kristi Jan Hoover. Endless Lawns, by Jeff Swensen. All the Names, by Heather Mull. August Strindberg, unknown (public domain). Snow, by Petrus Sjövik.

Mike Vargo, a freelance writer and editor based in Pittsburgh, covers theater for Entertainment Central.